By: Colleen Baxley and Emely Cardenas
We had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Dr. Susan Vorderer, associate professor in the History Department here at Merrimack College. The native Bostonian was kind enough to set aside some time to answer some of our questions.
Not always inspired by history, Dr. Vorderer sheds light on what it is like to be a scholar as well as a student. Having attended Tufts University as an undergraduate and Boston College for both her Masters and PhD, Dr. Vorderer, like many students, experimented with her course of study, even having taken a year off to learn Russian. She was a double major in Political Science and History while at Tufts, but it took the right professor and the right time period for Dr. Vorderer to realize her appreciation for history was actually love.
Always a good student, Dr. Vorderer admits that she did not always love history. She said that like many students, she had a string of uninspiring teachers, leading her to enter college unsure of her path. Having almost gone to law school, Dr. Vorderer recognizes that she had other career aspirations, but none of them were as engaging as history. While at orientation at Tufts, she was assigned an advisor from the Foreign Languages Department who ordered her to take Survey of Western Civilizations, similar to our European Experience courses at Merrimack. It was this course’s presentation, done in such a way that Dr. Vorderer could only describe the feeling as being as if “a door had been opened” that made her realize that learning can be invigorating. After taking all of the courses that this professor offered, Dr. Vorderer discovered what she hopes to pass on to her students about finding their passion- ‘If not now, then when?’
With this motto in mind, Dr. Vorderer went on to receive her PhD from Boston College, having done her dissertation on Imperial Russia. Dr. Vorderer conducted a study on a small textile town in European Russia (about 150 miles northeast of Moscow), Ivanovo-Voznesensk which specialized in calico cotton. In her dissertation, Dr. Vorderer discusses the phenomenon of “serf millionaires” in which unfree persons created greater incomes than that of the elite whose land or factories they were made to work on. With this in mind, the transition from a textile town to a textile city in which radicalism grew due to capitalistic exploitation of factory owners was also a point of interest within Dr. Vorderer’s dissertation. Working as an academic requires that one is constantly researching and is always striving to obtain new knowledge, and Dr. Vorderer is currently conducting research on Katherine Gertrude Harris, a prominent British woman who travelled to and from St. Petersburg in the 1770s and 1780s. When travelling in London, Dr. Vorderer stumbled upon a series of journals written by Harris, whose brother was ambassador to Russia. Hoping to gain some insight on Russia in this time, Dr. Vorderer was surprised by the amount of detail within the journals on Catherine the Great’s reign in a style that covered more than just the lavish balls and over-the-top gowns. Harris travelled through the countryside seeing Catherine the Great’s “improvements” for the serfs first-hand. Through journaling, this educated British woman expressed her concerns for the working conditions of women workers in the fields and factories. Having immersed herself in Harris’ journals, Dr. Vorderer suggested that investigating this woman’s life was a fun way to experience the period, especially through the lens of a woman with a sharp eye and keen observational skills.
Acting as a catalyst in piquing her interest in Russian history was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. She said that reading it was like entering a “world of opulence” that captured the childish romantic side of her. Being a historian and knowing what was to come, whilst being immersed in such a tale, brought with it a bittersweet feeling, like the “sickly sweet smell of decay.” This world was also a spark for her love of Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, with whom she would, if given the opportunity, share a drink or even a whole meal. Dr. Vorderer describes the monarch as multifaceted and being “sweet, vicious and intelligent.” She sees Catherine the Great as being a “formidable woman” who is impressive because of her ability to have managed not just to survive in the Russian courts as a disliked German princess, but to also thrive as a true monarch. She is an example of how a woman in the 18th century not only obtained power, but was able to keep it. Her life is also a reminder of the double standard that women faced; she had an impressive but horrible reputation that she likely would not have had if she had been male. It was this interest in Imperial Russia led Dr. Vorderer to pursue a career in sharing her passion with others.
While teaching at Merrimack, Dr. Vorderer agrees that she has been lucky enough to be able to stake her claim on the realm of modern Europe within the department. She compares this with that of a larger institution where she would have only been able to teach Russian history. While she says that she loves all of the modern European courses, she admits that her Imperial Russian course has never let her down. The level of interest of the students and the quality of interaction is usually better within the upper level courses. Of course, she says, each year is different and with each new “constellation of students,” a uniqueness is created within each class that continues to make teaching interesting.
Dr. Vorderer often uses novels in her courses to present the material in a more personable way. When asked about her favorite piece of fiction to use in a course, she immediately recalled the German novel Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Effi becomes a ‘fallen woman’ when she allows herself to be seduced. Dr. Vorderer describes this novel as a great way to transport students to the 19th century world of limits and expectations uncommon in today’s society. Dr. Vorderer also likes to use the nonfiction work of George Orwell from the 1930s called The Road to Wigan Pier. This investigation into the conditions of Great Britain during their economic depression sheds light on how in a world of plenty, so many communities face difficulties in regards to housing, employment, and other basic means of survival. Dr. Vorderer said that this is a very compelling primary source that presents this time period in an interesting way students rarely see. We can look forward to possibly seeing these two titles in Dr. Vorderer’s upcoming upper level courses in the Fall of 2015, ‘History of Modern Britain’ and ‘20th Century Europe.’
When asked about advice to give to those interested in pursuing history, Dr. Vorderer expressed a desire that we lived in a different environment because on a national level, degrees in history and other humanities have been receiving a bad reputation in the job market. In today’s society, humanities don’t sell as well as engineers or other STEM-based careers, making the study look poor in comparison. Few realize that employers won’t teach how to think but can teach you what they want you to do. If you study history, you develop the skills to take raw data and make something of it which is a true asset. You are able to synthesize and analyze material and communicate effectively, which are skills that should be celebrated as abilities any job/career would need. Dr. Vorderer suggests that history and humanities majors who hone these skills should to be confident enough to sell oneself well in an interview. The confidence of those who study the humanities always seems to be lower because when looking for work, there is never a calling for history majors specifically. Dr. Vorderer says that if you want to pursue history you need to make sure that you love it because the road is not necessarily delineated. You need to realize what you are getting with history because not only do you know “stuff,” but history can give you such skills that you can do anything with–it gives you something valuable and translatable in a very clear way.
After concluding our interview with Dr. Vorderer, we decided to address a rumor swirling around the history department. When asked about her involvement as a Russian spy, Dr. Vorderer was a good sport by admitting that “my secret is out,” and exclaiming “how else could I afford my lavish lifestyle?”
We enjoyed our time getting to know the person behind the lecture.